Northern lights? (or the glow from a reactor meltdown)

Having a nuclear reactor on board a ship is not a new idea. Having a pair of Russian nuclear reactors on a barge in the Arctic Region is kind of novel however. I have been watching with interest the progress of the Akademik Lomonosov for a short while now and intrigued by the possibilities it brings. Also the potential dangers.

Here is a short explanation from an article written in ars Technica in April of 2018.

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – APRIL 28, 2018: The Akademik Lomonosov, a barge containing two nuclear reactors, leaves St Petersburg; the Akademik Lomonosov, which has been built at Baltic Shipyard for a nuclear power station in the town of Pevek in Russia’s far north, is to be towed from the Baltic Sea to an Atomflot base in Murmansk on Russia’s Barents Sea coast to be loaded with nuclear fuel. Anton Vaganov/TASS (Photo by Anton VaganovTASS via Getty Images)

Megan is a staff editor at Ars Technica. She writes breaking news and has a background in fact-checking and research.

“On Saturday a new floating nuclear power plant left St. Petersburg, Russia, towed by two boats. The two-reactor, 70MW floating power plant is headed through the Baltic Sea and north around Norway, to a Russian town called Murmansk, where the boat will

After a period of time in Murmansk, the power plant will be towed to a small Arctic town called Pevek, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The floating nuclear power plant, called the Akademik Lomonosov, doesn’t have any of its own propulsion hardware, so being slowly towed to its destination is a necessity. The company that built the plant, state-owned Rosatom Corporation, said in a press release that the second stage of the journey, from Murmansk to Pevek, will commence in 2019, with fuel and crew aboard the boat/power plant.

Once the plant reaches Pevek, it will be used to power the 100,000-person town, a desalination plant, and oil rigs. Rosatom says that the Lomonosov is intended to replace the region’s Bilibino nuclear power plant, which provides 48MW of nuclear power and was built in 1974, as well as the Chaunskaya Thermal Power Plant, which is now 70 years old. Bilibino was once the northern-most nuclear power plant in the world, but after the Lomonosov is in operation, it will inherit that title.

The project has not been without the kinds of delays that nuclear projects seem to inevitably face: in 2015, the Norway-based website Barents Observer wrote that the Lomonsov would be put into service by October 2016.

Meanwhile, critics are concerned that a floating nuclear power plant is a situation ripe for disaster if the boat encounters extreme weather. In a statement, Greenpeace nuclear expert Jan Haverkamp cited concerns about the Lomonsov’s flat-bottomed hull and its lack of self-propulsion despite the fact that it is intended to be anchored in relatively shallow water.

Rosatom’s press release states that “All necessary construction works to create on-shore infrastructure are underway in Pevek. The pier, hydraulic engineering structures, and other buildings, crucial for the mooring of FPU [floating power unit] and operation of a FNPP [floating nuclear power plant] will be ready to use upon Akademik Lomonosov arrival.”

A likely reason why Russia would want a floating power plant? The region in which it will be stationed is quite remote, and moving machinery out by land is far more expensive than moving it by sea. Deutsche Welle points out that climate change has made it easier for Russia to use northern sea routes for transportation between the country’s west and east regions.”

Keeping all of that in mind, I was also interested to find the following two articles about nuclear submarines operating under the polar ice cap. These articles were written before the Nautilus was a household name and well before she completed her navigation under the ice.

The Key West Citizen, Editorial, Thursday January 15, 1953


The latest report of progress in the construction of the Navy’s first atom-powered submarine, the Nautilus, indicates that these atom-driven under-seas craft may be able to operate for some time under the thick polar ice which stretches outward from the poles. The possibility is even seen that an atom-powered submarine will cross under this tremendous ice blanket from the Western Hemisphere to Europe without surfacing during the trip. From a military standpoint, the advent of such a submarine would be of major importance. The northern approach to Russia, for instance, has always been closed to great areas of frozen seas, or unyielding ice-packs, which no ship could force itself. Aircraft, of course, fly overhead but until now, there has been no hope for a sea crossing.
The atom-powered submarine seems to be changing the picture. Submarines, which operate on atomic power are not limited by batteries which have to be recharged on the surface. Neither does the atom-powered submarine need air for operating its engines. The atomic power plant requires no air in creating the super-heat which produces steam for the propulsion turbine that drives the submarine.
Thus, atomic subs can remain underwater for long periods, or as long as the fuel supply lasts. Recent tests have shown that the Arctic Sea apparently has plenty of
water beneath the tremendous ice mass, stretching outward from the North Pole. A late test indicates there is 14,000 feet of water at the North Pole. Therefore, the possibility for submarines is almost unlimited, if they are capable of operating for long periods under the ice blanket.
One can readily see the importance of this new capacity for submarines, since it will be possible, when atom submarines are put into operation, to send one under the ice cap at the North Pole to the shores of a potential enemy, where it can launch an atomic missile. It could then dive and slip back under the ice blanket and head back to the United States. Neither aircraft nor surface ships could sink such a submarine, since the bombs would not penetrate the ice pack above it.

Polar Sea Ice May Be No Bar to New US Atomic Submarines

The Key West Citizen. December 13, 1952, Page 6, Image 6

Polar Sea Ice May Be No Bar to New US Atomic Submarines


WASHINGTON UPI _ The leagues of thick polar sea ice which stand between the northern rims of the Western Hemisphere and Eurasia may be no barrier to the atomic submarines the U. S. is now building.

That was made evident here by replies from the Navy to questions about the nuclear engine submarines it is developing—submersibles in which the crew as well as the boat can remain deep down for days, weeks or possibly months.

The northern approach to the mainlands of Russia and Canada, for example, always had been closed by the great areas of frozen seas or unyielding pack ice through which no craft could force its way—until the advent of long range planes.

But an article written for Collier’s magazine by Rear Adm. Homer Wallin, Chief of the Bureau of Ships, spoke cryptically of the ability of atomic submarines to launch guided missiles with atomic warheads and then slide silently beneath the waves ‘‘or ice” to reappear at another point to launch guided missiles with atomic warheads and then slide silently beneath the waves “or ice” to reappear at another point to launch another attack.

A reporter who asked Navy officials about this was told: “It is possible for even conventional submarines to operate under ice. Since a conventional submarine’s submerged endurance is limited by its batteries, and it must have air for operating its engines to recharge its batteries, it has a limited endurance for under ice operation.

‘‘The Nautilus (first of the atomic powered boats to be started), which will be independent of the earth’s atmosphere, will, therefore, be able to operate under ice for longer periods of time. It makes no difference whether the ice is solid or mushy as long as there is sufficient depth of water beneath the ice to permit submarine operation.”

(The Arctic Sea apparently has plenty of water beneath the ice, except possibly for some areas near land masses. Recent soundings have shown 14,000 feet of water at the North Pole.)

Wallin mentioned that the Nautilus would be able to dive deeper than any present, conventional submarine. Navy officials, in reply to a question about this, said cautiously that “greater depth for the Nautilus, as with any other submarine, could be made possible by making her pressure hull stronger through the use of greater weight or greater steel strength.”

The atomic power plant will require no air in creating the superheat to produce steam for the propulsion turbine, and thus can remain under water as long as the fuel lasts. This can be a long time—the fission of one pound of uranium releases energy equal to the combustion of 2,600,000 tons of coal.

That left the question of how long the crew of an atomic submersible could stay down, out of the earth’s atmosphere. Wallin said the Bureau of Ships is working on a gadget to take oxygen from the water, and that this may be ready for use in the Nautilus.

In addition to the problem of providing air, the Navy is studying other physiological and psychological problems of men living for prolonged periods confined in a sub.


A number of submarines have transited under the ice in the decades since Nautilus was the pioneer.

It is notable that no nuclear accident occurred on any of them.

I hope that decades from now, the same can be said about the Russian barge that is making its way north.

Mister Mac

4 thoughts on “Northern lights? (or the glow from a reactor meltdown)

  1. Very interesting about the floating reactor. Now if the country that was fielding the thing had only a slightly better track record with these things, then maybe it wouldn’t be so scary!

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